Remember when we all looked at the schedule and circled the stretch from September 16th to October 7th? It looked difficult before the season but has increased in difficulty even from those expectations. The first game against the Kansas State Wildcats was a hard-fought victory. Then Alabama submitted an application to replace the Titans in the AFC South. Most recently, Florida capitalized on just enough Vanderbilt mistakes to win in the Swamp. There were no lessons after Alabama except that Vanderbilt football is not ready to contend for a national title. The game in Gainesville offered more useful information.
Lessons We Are Learning
The run defense needs to improve. After allowing Alabama to set a new school record for rushing yards, the Gators pounded their way to 223 yards on 47 carries. There were a couple of big runs that really inflated the average, but those big plays are the differences in ball games. The last two games have relegated us to 107th against the run in FBS. Performances like that will not work in the SEC. The frustrating part is how often the run defense was doing a good job of making their fits and meeting runners in the hole only to be driven backwards. Tacklers have to get ball-carriers on the ground when they have the chance without letting them get 3, 4, or more yards after contact. Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and the rest of the Georgia Bulldogs will present a very stiff test. If the same tackling effort shows up in Nashville that was on display in Gainesville, Georgia will run up and down the field all day.
While I think we can firmly say Ludwig is doing a solid job as OC, the important factor is his ability to find plays the offense can execute while our rushing attack is totally floundering. Some of the rushing woes could be attributed to play design and play calling, so Ludwig does have some responsibility on that front. In his defense, he has found ways to create de facto running plays with screen passes and other short routes. Meanwhile, Kyle Shurmur is still playing really well. One big key is a HEAVY dose of play-action. Defenses are still keying on the running game, and Vandy throwing the ball on 41 of 60 offensive snaps has to be a surprise. The run game working is what usually causes PA to work well. Ludwig actually used a lack of running plays to make the defense think a run had to be coming, especially in typical rush downs, then had Kyle go over the top.
The passing attack still has more to give though. As Tom pointed out in The Statistical, there were some less-than-stellar catch rates. Operating by memory as he was, it was totally fair to not remember drops as an issue. There were not a lot of bad drops, but the receivers missed on some passes you would like to see caught. Duncan had a couple that he should have caught even if they were not perfectly thrown while Tennyson mishandled a deep ball or two. The real issue came down to guys not finishing plays. A couple deep balls were up for grabs, and guys did not fight for them. A few more completions can go a long way, especially with Shurmur developing a rhythm. It was said ad nauseum on the broadcast, but Kyle does get more effective once he can get rolling. The guys on the receiving end need to make two or three more plays per game. Those plays could take the passing game to a truly dangerous level.
Lessons We Know Well
As Vanderbilt fans, we may have to re-evaluate where the run defense is, but our pass defense is still excellent. The pass rush is getting to the QB a lot more often this year, and the coverage has been very good. Open field tackling has also been mostly effective. The yards allowed per game ranks 6th in the FBS with 143.2. The defensive passing efficiency is also 11th in FBS. We may need to sacrifice a bit in the coverage to help in run support, but we cannot continue to get run over.
Continuing this weird trend of our offensive strengths and weaknesses matching the defensive strengths and weaknesses, Kyle Shurmur got back on track. Even only going 18/40, Shurmur threw for 264 yards. His Raw QBR was good for 47th at 65.7, but Total QBR was 24th at 80.2. Kyle was looking deep early and often. He struggled to an 0/4 start, but his passes were really well placed most of the game. He may not mount a Heisman campaign, but Shurmur is one of the best QBs in the SEC. He gives us a chance to win games. A semi-effective rushing attack would be massive addition. The total shift from a potent rushing attack begging for a decent passing attack to an effective passing attack needing a threat of running the ball could really challenge a QB, but Kyle Shurmur has taken it in stride and mostly thrived. He also had to show some resilience after being crushed repeatedly by Alabama, and he did so very admirably.
Lessons We Will Study Further
Can the team find a way to capitalize on opportunities? Georgia will be enough of a challenge without the missed tackles or mental lapses that sunk Vanderbilt against Florida. Jonathan Wynn missed a free-shot sack immediately following Florida’s controversial 4th down conversion on their first TD drive. That play ended up being a 25-yard pass. Then Kalija Lipscomb inexplicably downed a punt that was rolling hard towards Florida’s end of the field to prevent giving the defense at least 10 or 15 more yards to defend. The secondary did have a passing lapse when they let Tyreek Cleveland get behind them to set Florida up for a tying FG to end the first half. The very next play saw a pass go straight through Wiley’s hands to blow a second chance to enter halftime with a lead. The collection of missed tackles has already been addressed. Cleaning up these things would go a long way to putting Vanderbilt back on the track they were before meeting Alabama and Florida.
How will the team respond to some serious adversity? They were drubbed by the best team in the country then dropped a frustrating one in the Swamp. Georgia is perfectly suited to attack the issues Vanderbilt has exited the last two weeks. They responded very well in the effort and fight level showed against Florida, but they must bring the execution with it. The Commodores dug deep at the end of the game and were a 4th and 1 stop from giving the ball back to Shurmur with 1:45 to go 80 yards to tie the game. The crazy part is that I think most of us would be fairly comfortable giving him that chance.